A Grateful Heart: Discovering the Practice of Examin (Jul-Aug 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

by Jackie Halstead
July – August, 2003

For one raised in a conservative church, I have struggled with being grateful to God. I was told that I must be thankful for my blessings and to be careful to live right or I would not go to heaven. This perception continued through my adult years when I became aware of the magnitude of God’s grace. The reward is not just in the great by and by but is today and every day. With this realization, gratitude made more sense. My focus shifted from what I have to do to be saved to what God does for me and how I can give Him glory because of who He is and because of the way He cares for me.

Gratitude does not always come easily, however. It must be deliberate and attended to on a continual basis. How does one attain this focus? Some are blessed with the cup-is-half-full mentality, but for the rest of the world, there are practices with which we can develop a grateful heart. One such practice is called Examen. It was brought to Christendom by an ex-soldier named Ignatius. He had done and seen everything in this world and was weary of life. When he was experiencing his darkest moment, he made a decision to become a soldier for the Lord. His life was changed so dramatically that he dedicated himself to service to God and spent his life demonstrating and teaching others to demonstrate how grateful they were to God. Examen became a regular practice of the Catholic church, and in the order of Jesuit priests in particular. They used this exercise of gratitude in their daily routine and prayers and in time taught it to their parishioners. One way to practice Examen involves asking oneself two simple questions: “For what am I most grateful?” “For what I am least grateful?” The first question elicits what Ignatius referred to as consolations and the second, desolations. These questions can be asked on a regular basis, alone or with others. As one keeps track of the consolations and desolations over time, patterns begin to emerge. We are able to identify acts/situations that bring us life, through looking at the consolations. As we pour our energies into these happenings, we experience the abundance of life God has promised. This promotes a grateful heart. When focusing on desolations, we see patterns that take life from us. This shows us areas we either need to avoid or address and change.

Examen can be practiced in a multitude of ways. The most simple way is to identify consolations and desolations each day. It is best to keep these short and focus on the highlights. The form of the questions can vary. In addition to the questions regarding most and least grateful, one can ask, “At what times did I feel most loved?” and “When did I feel least loved?” Another is “How was I most blessed today?” and “What was a struggle for me today?” The important factor is that the questions help you tune in to what gives you life and what takes life from you, and to recognize God’s involvement in that process. For example, as I kept track of my consolations and desolations, a pattern that emerged was that I need times of stillness. At those times I am able to slow my busy pace and be aware of God’s presence. It is difficult to set aside times for this stillness with my Type A personality.

I know, however, that these times give me life. I also realized that I am least grateful for those times when I have taken on more than I can handle. I do not feel I am giving anything my full attention. As I became aware of this, I realized that I need to focus on limiting my activities. In other words, I learned that even though there are so many wonderful opportunities for ministry, if I try to do everything, I am drained of life. I do not feel grateful to God, instead I feel overwhelmed. Therefore as I follow these insights I become more aware of God’s blessing and the manner in which He can best use me. I am doing the things that bring me life and feel a thankfulness and gratitude toward God. To put it simply, if something brings you life, do more of it. If it takes life away from you, do less of it.

Another way to practice Examen is with others. It can be experienced as a family. When we began the process, our daughters were ages three and seven years. At our evening meal, we shared our best and worst for the day. This not only helped us think of and share how we were grateful, but also facilitated discussion of problems, of which we as parents were at times unaware. It also helped us as parents share the ways God had blessed us and let the girls see that we had struggles even as adults. The sharing of consolations and desolations is now more sporadic, and it typically occurs when I say good night. The topics have become more complex—as they are in high school and middle school—but it still serves to help our family emphasize how God brings life and how He walks with us when we struggle.

Examen can be used in a myriad of ways in one’s profession or with friends. I train marriage and family therapists. Part of my role is supervision of interns as they learn to counsel. At our weekly meeting we share our consolations and desolations as part of supervision. The semester always begins with some hesitancy as they share, but by the end of the fifteen weeks, the group has become close. I give them the list of consolations and desolations that I have recorded each week to help them identify things that bring them life and challenges that drain life from them.

Finally, Examen can be used to help in decision-making. It helped me in my decision to go into academia. I recognized that teaching adults was a consolation for me. I felt energized and full of life when I had an opportunity to lead a discussion or teach a class. This understanding was useful as I made the decision to go back to school in order to teach at the college level.

Examen emphasizes the way God blesses us and how He allows us to struggle. As we all know, God has not promised us a life without challenges. However, He uses these as opportunities to bring glory to himself and refine us for a closer walk with him. When we have a grateful heart despite the trials of life, like Paul we can say, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances ” (Philippians 4:11, NIV).


For more on Examen and see the book, Sleeping with Bread: Holding on to What Gives Us Life, by Matt Linn, Dennis Linn, and Sheila Fabricant-Linn.New Wineskins

Jackie HalsteadDr. Jackie L. Halstead is on the faculty of the department of Marriage and Family Therapy of Abilene Christian University. Her growing interest in spiritual direction, silent retreats and contemplative prayer have been a blessing in her teaching, speaking, counseling, parenting two daughters, and partnering with her husband, Randy. She above all enjoys spending time outside enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. Jackie can be reached at [halsteadj@acu.edu].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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